History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training – Number 15

Posted by in Dr Ken Leistner on June 23, 2014 Comments off

For the bodybuilders in our area, it almost didn’t matter what bars or plates they used as long as the bars weren’t too badly bent and the plates actually fit onto the bars. These weren’t “givens” in a lot of the storefront gyms or basements we would find ourselves visiting. Anyone who saw themselves as a “lifter” wanted to use what they considered to be a “real” barbell which meant the York Olympic bar and preferably with York Olympic plates. Especially for those preparing for a contest of any type, the Olympic bar was a must, in part because this is what would most likely be used in a contest, at least in the New York Metropolitan area, and because it seemed to be important that one use the same type of bar and plates to train with that they would be called upon to compete with. In California as I later learned, contests were held using York, Paramount, Marcy, and BFCO bars and plates, often interchangeably or with a mix of each on the competitive platform. The odd lift and early powerlift contests that used 100 pound plates most often utilized Peary Rader’s Iron Man Barbell 100’s or York standard 100’s that had been drilled out to fit the Olympic bars.

Bodybuilders in most of the small hardcore gyms around the area would use Olympic or standard bars and plates. I can’t recall seeing small-holed, standard plates in use at any gym facility in decades but they were “the usual” into the mid-1970’s and the storefront gym we frequented, owned by Tony Pandolfo was no exception. We had one York Olympic 410 pound set, one Jackson Olympic Barbell set, and literally tons of standard plates and bars. When the fellows did squats, deadlifts, cleans, or the bench press they invariably looked to use the Olympic bars as it seemed to be “more official.” However incline or decline presses, often performed with up to 400 pounds on the bar, as well as curls, triceps extensions, barbell row, upright row, or power rack work assuming a power rack was available, usually utilized the small-holed plates and matching bars. The few machines that were in existence, primarily vertical or inverted leg presses, variations of a lat pulldown and/or low cable row, and combination leg extension and leg curl tables as they were most often referred to, also had plate holders for the standard rather than Olympic type plates. I believe that most readers interested enough in powerlifting and/or equipment to be regular readers of this Eleikousa series of articles, are aware of the fact that the first eight Hammer Strength machines were developed and drawn on a computer in my living room when Gary Jones moved in to specifically get the ball rolling for what was in 1988, a new company. I was looking at Hammer equipment this morning and thinking how unusual it would be to see the same equipment accepting only the small-holed type of plates. For those that don’t remember, the first Nautilus machines were plate loaded. The plate carriages that were elevated by cable in the Pullover Type Torso Machine, Torso/ Arm Machine, Behind Neck Type Torso Machine, Row Type Torso Machine (referred to as “Row Back” in the factory), Curl/Triceps combination, and the first Hip And Back Machine only accepted the small-holed plates, not Olympic plates.

History Supplement: Additional PLUSA and Mike Lambert Comments


I received a lot of questions and comments in response to my mention of Mike Lambert and Powerlifting USA Magazine in Part 13 of the Eleikousa series of articles. The younger generation of powerlifters with their internet access, instant communication, easy entry to data bases, and what seems like an insatiable penchant for communicating cannot believe that the true voice of the sport began as a mimeographed grouping of pages stapled together in the basement of Mike’s parents’ house. Of course, I first had to explain, more than once, what “mimeographed” referred to but the growth of the magazine, which once mirrored the growth of the sport, continues to amaze and gratify me. Powerlifting was little more than a cult activity when PLUSA was born and certainly before that. I was dizzy with excitement when I wandered into the Venice Beach Pavilion. By 1966 it had become the sibling-like substitute for the defunct Santa Monica Muscle Beach and the site of physique and powerlifting “shows” as they were referred to. When Bill “Peanuts” West said, “You’re the football guy from New York” and insisted that I enter a small local contest, I almost fell over. I knew Peanuts only from what I had read in Iron Man and the small, monthly inclusion of powerlifting news in the Powerlines section of Weider’s Muscle Power magazine. There would be occasional mention of the California lifters in York’s Muscular Development but they tried to avoid giving any press to “Weider guys” which included most of the Southern California competitors and instead, gave most of their space to the deserving men from the Middle Atlantic and northeastern regions. My return to the New York City area was typical. I was besieged with requests for “the secret routines,” the “special diets,” and the unusual exercises that the West Coast boys might have been utilizing. This was how one learned and gathered information about the sport as there was no national organization of lifters that remained in touch on a regular basis and nothing resembling an internet. If Mike wanted or needed an article, we would talk on the phone or exchange letters (those mailed through the US Postal Service for those who no longer communicate in that manner!). I would hand-write the article or on occasion, use a typewriter and then mail it to Mike. He would in turn type it out as per the layout he wished to present it in once the magazine was put together. It was a longer and more labor intensive process but a time honored one. It was also an effective means to communicate the inside information of the sport in part because writing out information took some time and thought and perhaps forced one to give stronger consideration to their words.

Of course the downside of the present situation is the influx and dissemination of total bullshit and make-believe lifting stories that flood the electronic highway, doing little more than confusing the sincere lifter seeking to learn and distorting the abilities of those inclined to run down the reputation of others. It can be brutal, thus there was much to be said for going to those who truly knew how to improve and then, via Mike’s magazine, having a legitimate source of information. To Mike’s credit, it is still a thrill for any and every lifter to find his or her image on the cover of PLUSA. I actually had that honor in May of 1984 although one glance at the impromptu photo taken by my wife Kathy, made it clear that the subject of that cover shot was NFL star Lyle Alzado. I was there for window dressing and little more as this was a post workout photo of two football teammates and sometimes training partners in the garage gym, hanging out after a workout. Still, at the time, it seemed as if every lifter, strength coach, and all of the guys whom I knew that trained, had seen the cover. Mike had visited us and stayed as a houseguest prior to the 1982 World Championships. We also roomed together in Munich, as we had at numerous prior national and world meets. We had an ongoing discourse regarding the role of PLUSA in the lifting community and its responsibilities to the lifter and those who supported the sport with their commercial interests.

Mike always saw the magazine as a vehicle to spread news, training information, and the political concerns of the sport. What amazed me was his ability to remain politically neutral, especially in 1980 when the sport began to splinter badly into many smaller groups, each with a specific interest and agenda. Of course, the legacy of division remains today in what must be the most fractured amateur sport in the nation, yet Mike and PLUSA have remained the voice of reason and a forum for all to espouse and share their points of view. When Mike would defend his decision to allow what seemed like almost anyone to express what I interpreted to be a ridiculous point of view with the reasoned comment that “He’s entitled to make his point,” I would sometimes repeat the “smartass” comment, circa fifth grade that “its too bad that point is on top of his head.” Mike was and through the decades, has remained fair, never pushing his personal belief or bias in the public forum he in fact owned and controlled. Through the birth and death of many other powerlifting publications, Powerlifting USA and the integrity it represents, remains only because of Mike Lambert.


While the Olympic barbell was sought out by the competitive lifters or those adamant about “doing things professionally,” the standard bars and plates would also be used for the competitive lifts if the one York Barbell and/or one Jackson Barbell set was in use. Many a wrist was “dinged” performing power or squat cleans and often without significant resistance, with a bar that did not rotate. The standard bars almost always had a piece of lightweight chromed round or pipe stock over the bar that would rotate as it was held in one’s hands. This was not very efficient nor safe but this is how it was done. If the standard bar was one that was cut in my father’s shop from a twenty-foot length of hot or cold-rolled solid round stock, it obviously was not going to rotate. For those familiar with the iron or steel making process, it was predictable that any of the one-and-one-sixteenth-inch or one-and-one-eighth-inch hot-rolled round stock bars would bend if forced to hold anything over 500 pounds or if it was dropped with much less than that on the bar. For the competitive weightlifters among our readers, try to imagine a group of budding lifters with marginal Olympic lifting skill doing power cleans with a “thin” non-rotating hot-rolled bar holding 350 pounds. If this was described as “dangerous” to us, we would have laughed. If in retrospect I was now told that it was only through Devine Intervention that none of us was injured, I would agree. While I was quick to provide a spot to anyone who asked or even appeared as if they needed one, the favor wasn’t readily returned. Unfortunately, it was generally agreed that I was “on the list” of those to avoid if a spotter was needed. Even as a youngster, only my quiet and withdrawn manner would usually stop teachers or other adults just short of describing me as “reckless.” Many however described me as “a bit crazy” and “capable of doing anything” because of what seemed to be an apparent lack of concern for the physical consequences of some of my decisions. From my vantage point, I thought things out, weighed the risk-reward ratio, and acted accordingly. When my best squat however, hovered around 500 and I loaded 560 on the bar “just to see if I could get up for it psychologically,” potential spotters usually chose that moment to use the restroom, walk onto the street for a breath of fresh air, or be totally engrossed on the set they were completing, even if they had to extend that set for many more reps than the routine called for. More than once I got buried and did my usual “trick” of tossing the bar off of my back as the Laws Of Physics propelled me forward, head first into the wall in response to the bar flying backwards through the air until it crashed to the floor. This enamored me to no one. That I would fearlessly attempt weights that were in fact, close to impossible made me at times, our “Typhoid Mary.”

These were the days before bumper plates and before almost any facility had a true lifting platform. Our “platform” was an area that had the other barbells rolled off to one side and the benches pulled out of the way. There was no padding, no special flooring, no rubber mats, no plywood, and as we often said, “no nothin’.” I probably destroyed a dozen bars both at home and at the storefront gym losing a lift I had been convinced I would make, many of them with bystanders clinging to the walls and giving me as much room as possible to damage myself. Any hot-rolled bar will bend or distort under those circumstances. The few cold-rolled bars we had sometimes withstood the potential damage and the chrome vanadium bar, supposedly “made from the same steel used for the shafts of the York Olympic Barbell” was considered to be the best of any of the standard, non-Olympic bars. In last month’s installment I mentioned a trip to the York foundry. I had a much better “feel” for the manufacturing process watching one of the older veterans, with the expected forearms that were popping out from his rolled-up shirtsleeves, utilize a milling machine. As I described, the hand operated piece would be run over the surface of the York 45 and 35-pound plates as grams of metal were shaved from the surface. The great looking “swirls” on the old York plates was the milling process pattern, York’s claim to fame and of course, it was this milling process that the York ads referred to when they bragged about offering “milled plates.” Bragging was allowed as most of the York plates that I purchased between 1968 and 1993 were within grams of their stated weight, especially the kilo plates we used for our contests. Unfortunately, expenses related to both the foundry and milling processes have left the lifter with plates that are now manufactured out of the U.S., perhaps in Canada, Taiwan, or China, and that time-honored milling process is a thing of the past. If one asks, “Did it make a difference?” the obvious answer is “Absolutely” as even those plates used in contests, if not “milled to exact weight” were often six to nine pounds lighter or heavier than the plates stated denomination.